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Monday, January 19, 2015

HELLO, I'm Johnny Cash. Written by G. Neri and illustrated A.G. Ford. Candlewick Press, Random House. 2014. $19.00 ages 8 and up

"Too young
to work the fields,
J.R. watched
from the front porch
as his family
headed out to
the cotton patch.
He hated
being by himself,
so Daddy bought him
a small battery-powered radio..."

I found myself really liking this picture book biography of one of my son's musical heroes. G. Neri has chosen poetry to recount Johnny Cash's life from farm boy to the much honored Man in Black of country music fame. Each one of the poems presented to tell his fascinating, and often heartbreaking, story is titled for one of Johnny Cash's many memorable songs.

His was an inauspicious beginning, and the Depression didn't help:

"Before he became
Johnny Cash,
he was simply called
J. R. -
a name that stood for nothing,
and nothing was all he had
coming into this world."

The Depression forced the family from the place they called home, and sent them looking for something better. As they journeyed, they sang together. In their new home the family toiled extremely hard to work fields of cotton. It was not an easy life, by any means. Only his mother's guitar brought peace to J. R. when he was filled with fear for their future. J.R. had to watch, as he was too young to help.

He loved the radio his father bought to keep him company while he was alone. He loved the sounds, the promises that the songs made, and he could remember every song he heard. At five, neighbors would drop by to hear him sing. He had a dream:

"He dreamed that
he'd fly away
to those faraway places
and write songs about them
for the radio,
so that some kid
might hear them
and dream a little

It is the music that gets J. R. through the heartbreaking loss of his older brother, Jack. Following his funeral, he sings the spirituals heard there to bring peace to the family as they returned to their work in the fields. It was while taking long walks to deal with the loss that J. R. met Jesse Barnhill, another young boy who loved music just as much as he did. They worked together to learn chords; J. R.  felt the call of the music more and more:

"But J.R. couldn't help it -
he felt the music calling
like a voice
from the middle of the earth,
full of mystery
and power,
reaching up
and grabbing hold
of his heart."

The final poems allow readers a look at J. R.'s time in the military, his marriage and move to Memphis, his invitation to sing in church, his meeting with Elvis and making a name for himself and his music at Sun Records. Opening for Elvis was the catalyst to a long and rewarding career as a singer/songwriter:

"the Man in Black believed
his role was to sing the truth,
whether it was popular or not.
His songs gave a voice
to the voiceless,
capturing so many people's
heartaches, struggles, and triumphs
it seemed like he spoke
for America
just as America spoke for him."

Back matter includes More About Johnny Cash, Historical Events in Johnny's Lifetime, a Discography and a Bibliography.

A. G. Ford uses oil paints to enhance the storytelling and afford readers a look at a young boy growing up in hardship and finding the path to his dream.


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